US’ top terror cities: Old practice, new discourse

Muslim American condemnation of the suspicious ‘terror’ label is a must to halt further government s

New York-based Muslim Americans protest the NYPD's 'Muslim Spying Unit' [EPA]

In the 13 years since the 9/11 attack, the US has exponentially expanded surveillance of its citizens. In addition to enhanced federal surveillance, local police units throughout the country have implemented spying programmes exclusively dedicated to monitoring Muslim-American communities.

Anger at reports NY police spied on Muslims

While government strategy, personnel and technology have changed, the racial and religious profiling driving surveillance has not.

Not surprisingly, the five most spied on cities are home to thriving and sizeable Muslim-American communities. New York City, Dearborn, Houston, San Diego, and Chicago, in that order, according to the government, harbour the largest number of terror suspects in the country.

Published in the Intercept, the article exposing “Barack Obama’s Secret Tracking System” was read with alarm by everyone except the residents of the “top 5” cities. The report introduced valuable statistical data, but only affirmed a reality that residents of these Muslim-Americans hubs have grown accustomed to living with for decades. 

Instead of causing alarm, President Obama’s “Terror Watchlist” should be heeded as a call for a new strategy and immediate action on part of Muslim American advocacy groups. 

Surveillance is not new

The 9/11 terrorist attacks drove the Patriot Act through Congress, which gave birth to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and gave the federal government unprecedented power to spy on Muslim-Americans. But, by then the community was already subject to government monitoring.

In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, COINTELPRO drove government monitoring of Black Muslim bodies and organisations. In 1978, the Federal Investigative Surveillance Act (FISA) equipped the federal government with the authority to spy on “foreign powers” and their “agents”, including US citizens. This law proved especially damaging for the Muslim-American community, whose members, although US citizens, had been systemically perceived as perpetually foreign, and concomitantly, loyal to other countries. FISA fuelled surveillance of established and immigrant Muslim communities throughout the 1980s and 1990s, focusing specifically on Arab and Iranian communities because of strife in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Iran.

On the heels of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Although  it was a white American who did the bombing, the AEDPA affected disproportionately Muslim-American defendants accused of terrorism, since they constitute the majority of suspected terror cases. The diminished habeas corpus spurred by AEDPA, combined with the surveillance power FISA extended, granted the federal government the powers to monitor and prosecute Muslim-Americans even when it had little evidence of suspected wrongdoings.

Post-9/11 the government enhanced its surveillance tools and mandate, but it capitalised on laws and practices which already existed and which equated Muslim identity with potential threat. The 9/11 attacks, therefore, did not initiate government surveillance of Muslim-American communities; instead the post-9/11 era revealed that surveillance of Muslim-Americans – whether Arab, Black, South Asian or otherwise – had become longstanding modus operandi.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ Muslim           

Much of the US Muslim community has resigned to living with the knowledge that it is being monitored. A dangerous development, this resignation has entrenched sentiments that nothing can be done to curb government surveillance. Consequently, it has ingrained the idea that being Muslim in the US must come with acceptance of a diminished, second-class citizenship. 

Without question, government surveillance policies are driven by the idea that Islam itself, and followers of the faith, are potential national security threats. This creates a suffocating socio-political landscape for Muslim citizens, religious institutions and advocacy organisations, which self-monitor and suppress otherwise routine activities for fear of it being perceived as suspicious or “radicalising”.

The government rewards Muslim individuals and organisations who adopt what it considers being “acceptable Muslims”. This automatically brands those disagreeing with their approach highly suspicious, which can prove particularly dangerous in this era of hyper-surveillance.

Furthermore, adopting this approach entrenches the “good versus bad Muslim” binary that informs both federal and local government surveillance. 

Counter-surveillance advocacy

Muslim-American advocacy groups need to shift their strategy of engagement with the government and start openly condemning and campaigning against the expanding surveillance state.   

The problem with a lot of these organisations is that they have adopted the line of thought that surveillance is a uniquely post-9/11 phenomenon, deployed to separate the good from the bad Muslims. This view overlooks the history of monitoring of Muslims and ignores the plight of those victimised by FISA, AEDPA, and their predecessors.

The post-9/11 era revealed that surveillance of Muslim Americans – whether Arab Black, South Asian or otherwise – had become longstanding modus operandi.,

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It also distances DC-based advocacy organisations from the existential realities of Muslim citizens on the ground in places like New York and Dearborn. In addition to high-profile Muslim-Americans, federal and local surveillance programmes focus also on poor and working class Muslim-Americans living in the inner city where local police, federal agents, and hired informants monitor them closely. Ignored by journalists and advocacy groups, this segment of the Muslim-American community is the least legally and financially equipped to combat arbitrary government surveillance, and thus, most vulnerable to its perils.  

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was aware of this reality, when it spearheaded litigation that toppled the NYPD “Muslim Spying Unit” in court in April, securing the biggest victory for Muslim-Americans civil rights in recent years.

Although the ACLU is not a Muslim-American organisation, its engagement of established government channels, including courts, to call into question and ultimately undo the NYPD’s Muslim Spying Unit highlights that government engagement and condemnation are not mutually exclusive strategies. 

Furthermore, new advocacy approaches have to focus on reframing the surveillance discourse to highlight the history of profiling of Muslims in the US; on dismissing the “good versus bad Muslim” binary; and on shifting organisational emphasis from the capital to urban communities, where government surveillance is most intense. Such a strategy shift is long overdue. 


Khaled A. Beydoun is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School Law. He is a native of Detroit. 

Follow him on Twitter: @KhaledBeydoun